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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Sunday, William Ashley "Billy"
(November 19, 1862–November 6, 1935)

–professional baseball player, Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) worker, and professional evangelist—was the youngest of three sons of Mary Jane and William Sunday. Born near Ames, Iowa, his boyhood was characterized by poverty and instability resulting from William's death during the Civil War and Mary Jane's subsequent unhappy second marriage. The family's plight eventually became so difficult that Billy and an older brother spent two years in state-supported orphanages established in Glenwood and Davenport for children whose fathers were victims of the war. After leaving the orphanages in the mid 1870s, Sunday resided briefly with his grandfather in Story County and then moved on to the nearby county seat of Nevada, where he lived and worked throughout his mid and late teens.

    In the late 1870s or early 1880s Sunday moved to Marshalltown, where his athletic prowess in fire company competitions and on the baseball diamond brought him to the attention of Marshalltown native Adrian "Cap" Anson, a successful major league baseball player and manager of the Chicago White Stockings. Anson invited Billy to try out with his team, and the youthful Iowan became a second stringer with the club. For the next eight years, he had a respectable, though not spectacular, career in the National League, first with Chicago, then Pittsburgh, and briefly with Philadelphia.

    While he was in Chicago two important events occurred in Sunday's life: he married Helen "Nell" Thompson, who afforded him a much-needed sense of security and stability and whose energy, attention to detail, administrative skills, and stabilizing influence were to be instrumental in his later success; and he experienced a religious conversion that ultimately turned him toward evangelism. In 1891 he left professional baseball and became an assistant secretary with the Chicago YMCA. Two years later he accepted a position as advance man for Presbyterian evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman, working with him until late 1895, when Chapman temporarily abandoned evangelism for the parish ministry. In early 1896 Sunday conducted his first solo revival in Garner, Iowa. Soon, invitations to preach elsewhere began to arrive, and he was launched on his evangelistic career.

    After a decade preaching primarily in the towns and small cities of Iowa and nearby midwestern states, Sunday began moving into larger urban areas across the country. Between 1910 and 1920, he preached in most of the nation's major metropolitan centers, reaching the zenith of his success with a ten-week revival in New York City in the spring and summer of 1917.

    Sunday was as controversial as he was popular. Critics, pointing to the flamboyant Presbyterian revivalist's wealth, showmanship, and lack of sophistication, considered him a reactionary or charlatan. Admirers, noting his courage, businesslike methods, and advocacy of reforms such as prohibition, regarded him as God's unconventional messenger to an age in dire need of the Gospel.

    Sunday's unconventionality was a matter of style and not substance. His theology was simple and conformed largely to a few basic tenets of fundamentalism. He took for granted the social and economic orthodoxy of his native region, and he equated the evangelical moral code of rural and small-town mid- and late-19th-century Iowa with Christian conduct. His manner of delivering the Gospel was, however, unorthodox. He was a gifted showman at a time when options for entertainment were limited, and his flamboyant showmanship was unquestionably an integral part of his appeal. So too was his connection to professional baseball, espousal of business methods in religion, advocacy of various moral reforms, and rise from poverty and obscurity to fame and wealth, which seemingly validated the American myth of success.

    Sunday's popularity waned in the 1920s and 1930s. His advancing age, the moral and financial problems of his three sons, the illness and death of his daughter, and changes in popular values and attitudes enervated his ministry. Although he was never without invitations to preach, increasingly his ministry was relegated to the smaller cities and towns of the South and Midwest, and only rarely was he invited to a major metropolitan center. Yet he remained as active as his health would permit, preaching his last sermon in Mishawaka, Indiana, only a few days before his death in Chicago in early November 1935.

    Over the course of his career, Billy Sunday is said to have preached to between 80 and 100 million people, with roughly 1 million of those "hitting the sawdust trail," accepting his version of the Gospel or rededicating themselves to an understanding of Christianity to which they were already committed. At the peak of his success, he was one of the best known and most admired men in America. By recasting conventional concepts and familiar mores in the mold of modernity, his ministry bridged the gap between the rural and small-town nation of the 19th century and the urban, industrial one of the 20th. In doing so, he helped many of his contemporaries negotiate the challenges inherent in a changing world and left one of the most colorful and controversial legacies in the history of American evangelism.
Sources The Papers of William and Helen Sunday are in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. His autobiography is The Sawdust Trail: Billy Sunday in His Own Words (2005). See also William G. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (1955); Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (1991); and Roger A. Bruns, Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism (1992). A death notice was in the New York Times, 11/7/1935.
Contributor: Robert F. Martin

Cite as: Martin, Robert F. "Sunday, William Ashley "Billy"" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 18 January 2018